Sunday, September 17, 2000

Stage First improves in Part II

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Stage First brings fresh eyes to its season debut, the premiere of the middle section of artistic director Nicholas Korn's trilogy of Alexander the Great.

        The Fall of Persia introduces director Mary Lenning to Cincinnati, and she's a welcome addition to the scene. (Ovation already has booked her for later this season.)

        Ms. Lenning, who spends most of her time teaching (and directing) theater at Miami University's Hamilton campus, delivers one of the most satisfying Stage First entries ever.

        The Fall of Persia has a strong sense of place, thanks to Brent Hodge's set design. In the Aronoff's Fifth Third Theater, Mr. Hodge suggests ancient monuments and hard, rocky terrain. The image is deepened by Angela Pascale's lighting.

        Ms. Lenning also demonstrates a real gift for working with actors. Several performers return from last season's Alexander, Part One. They were stolid then, occasionally rising to stoic. Now they're actually interested and involved.

        You can't help but admire Mr. Korn's ambition in writing an epic adventure of the Macedonian conqueror who ruled his world when he was still in his 20s.

        Alexander is widely considered to be the finest military strategist in history, managing to win battles when outnumbered as much as 10 to one, but Mr. Korn's drama speaks more to the stupidity and egoism of his enemies than any particular brilliance on the part of Alexander.

        The Fall of Persia is a decided improvement on the first episode, but Mr. Korn, whose ability at fashioning a verse drama is impressive, still hasn't conquered his own chief battle.

        He still hasn't mastered the art of creating compelling characters. Asking an audience to stick with a drama for 2 1/2 hours when there's nobody onstage to care about is asking a lot.

        Dan Cooley has grown considerably in the title role, and he's also responsible for the fine fight choreography.

        The script doesn't give him enough help, so he performs virtues — intelligence, nobility, strength. He delivers three powerful monologues through the course of the play, but somehow they are eloquent without illuminating the man.

        Tina Manchise stands out as a wry and observant eunuch servant to the Persian queen. She listens well, important since she spends a lot of down time onstage. George Alexander gives good support as a Greek mercenary.

        Ken Early has what could be a potentially juicy role as the deeply flawed king of Persia, but it demands one of those breathtaking performances in which an actor lets the audience see into a character's mind, a near impossibility in such a young company.

        Dana Danson is properly soulful as the Persian queen, although she's a little too Ophelia in the end, and Jennifer Hurrell strikes the right royal note as the Persian king's mother.

        The company looks good in a wardrobe from Cincinnati Costume Co. and, leaving nothing to chance, Ms. Lenning has added dimension to the production with her sound design.

        Alexander the Great: The Fall of Persia, Stage First, Fifth Third Theater, through Oct. 1. 241-7469.


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